Take a walk on the wild side, and talk

Notes on Philipp Gehmacher’s project walk + talk in Tanzquartier Wien

Corpus 6 Apr 2008English

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The dance studio is a space foreign to most spectators of contemporary dance – including critics, theoreticians and curators. Though process-ridden performance is common nowadays, the actual conditions for the production of dance have long evaporated once the resulting choreography hits the stage. So has the practical language of making, together with an insight in the ways movement is being made. What happens in this leap from studio to stage? What gets filtered out? And conversely: what can only occur on stage? To address the intricacies of this transition means to surpass modernism’s epistemological stability and deconstruct a view that celebrates dance as autonomous and devoid of language – a fiction upon which modernist ‘authorized’ critical and theoretical discourses thrive. (1) What if dancers and choreographers would not only speak on stage, but talk about their work while dancing?

On invitation of Tanzquartier Wien, the choreographer Philipp Gehmacher curated Still moving (14–21 March 2008), which included the presentation of performances by Sioned Huws, Antonia Baehr/Henry Wilt, and Rémy Héritier. The project’s core though, which interests me here, was a newly conceptualized and produced series called walk + talk, for which Gehmacher invited nine colleagues to demonstrate and discuss their movement language on the large stage of Halle G. The theatre was stripped bare by Gehmacher and visual artist Alexander Schellow, the choreographers found themselves alone on stage without music, set or props. This resulted in ten quite different proposals, wavering between performance, lecture-demonstration and improvisation, but always putting the artist on the spot and yielding a strong focus on movement language as the dancer/choreographer’s basis. At this point, Gehmacher’s choreographic and curatorial interests meet: yes, it is possible and necessary today to explore movement language as a realm of meaning and as a contemporary departure point for choreography. In Europe’s current dance world, which finds itself so often torn between the extremes of traditionalist or modernist autonomous dance and conceptualist approaches that harbour dance as a taboo or at most embrace it as a readymade, Gehmacher’s Still moving can be read as a statement.

As a format, walk + talk also explicates Gehmacher’s discursive take on expressionism. Once the language of making punctures the studio walls and reverberates on stage, its lingering complexity becomes overt. After all, this practical language relates to knowledge and experience that has inscribed itself over a long period in the dancer’s body, as a witness of dance’s primarily discursive nature and perhaps even of life’s narrativity. Opening up the dance studio one bumps into other foreign spaces, encompassing one another like Russian dolls. Discussing one’s way of working on stage doesn’t necessarily run the risk to disenchant the work or to reconstitute the phantasm of a fully enlightened and self-transparent subject, but may as well hint at the unfathomable depths of language. Eventually, in the jump from studio to stage, this limit might be what pulls about walk + talk‘s imaginary realm. In that respect, walk + talk was not only a serial event in which ten choreographers elucidated their ways of working, it can also be regarded as a portrait of Gehmacher by himself and nine others – ten detours to skirt what is left undiscussed in Gehmacher’s own work.

But the latter is too large a question for this text. Rather than describing ten choreographer’s proposals and at the risk to be short in estimating them as author’s in their own right, I will regard walk + talk as one collective project and discuss a few recurring tropes and issues, as guidelines for travelling through unfamiliar spaces.


The hand is a score

In her walk + talk, Antonia Baehr introduced her interest in working with scores, first proposing a tautological reading of the task ‘walk and talk’, then re-enacting existing scores, sometimes reading out loud the task as to share its intricacy and source material, eventually responding to pre-recorded voices, all the while piling up new layers of reflection on the delivery of movement, gesture and posture, on authorship, identity and gender. In between she would stand still for a while, remove her sleeve and ‘contemplate’ her left arm. Though rather stated than verbally discussed, she shared yet another score in these interruptions: a memory list written on her hand transformed into something else, as if stating ‘The hand is a score’. Baehr touched upon one of the main topoi in walk + talk: in discussing their movement language, the invited choreographers often used their hand as a point of departure.

The hands are customarily linked to gestures that accompany speech, but once regarded as a score they contain the gist of a movement vocabulary and a conflicting universe. Whilst observing her hand, Meg Stuart stated that she often observes her hand. The hand provokes observation, a mixture of fascination, an interest in detail and the experience of dissociation, of taking distance from oneself. A limb severed from the body and let loose, model for an outside view upon oneself, for travelling in foreign bodies and spaces, for the question whose body is at work, under whose gaze, authorship and ownership, for a body pulled around by the world and its strange energies. Model also for the dancer/choreographer’s schizophrenia, negotiating embodiment and reflection while dancing.

The hand is a model for the stage, exposed to the spectators’ gazes – in Gehmacher’s words: “How to negotiate between abstract gestures and gestures that kick into representation straight away, which is hard to avoid?” Gehmacher addressed movement that carries an awareness of this multiple gaze, and explored the difference between narrative and symbolical gestures. Boris Charmatz sought to explode representation by exhausting all the possible readings of a gesture, briefly marking them – “Once a révérence can express both the king’s and the servant’s gesture you embody contradiction, get started and can move anyplace.”

As the ten choreographers found themselves alone on stage in <>walk + talk, a dancer’s perspective was very much present throughout the series. Milli Bitterli adopted a teacher’s persona when discussing technique as a way to understand the body, its memory and training, and as a way to explore shapes – rather than reproduce images. She explained how she thinks in opposites while dancing (“embrace the desire to get up when on the floor, think of a new start when about to break up, think of love when in pain”), includes emotion and enjoys to slightly overdo it, like dressing oneself with movement and then also overdressing oneself. How to move faster than one’s thoughts? Throw gestures without thinking first, pollute your mind with images until something else appears in this cluster of thoughts, considerations and tasks. This whirlpool in the dancer’s head, as a private dramaturgy aiming at self-acceleration and complexity, was aptly expressed in Rémy Héritier’s loud and overpowering soundtrack, overlayering his own voice several times. A multitude of voices provoking an obstinate dance desiring to derail itself and move anyplace, beyond one’s habits and acquired movement language.

The hand leads into space, moving one’s arms about is a way “to take your kinesphere with you” for Gehmacher. Later he found out he could stand still and point in many directions, “to be in contact with the world without moving around all the time.” That world is obviously the theatre – is it possible to imagine an outside in the theatre? In the opening performance of the walk + talk series, Oleg Soulimenko found himself struggling to walk through the looking-glass, addressing memory and possibility on stage, including movements and gestures quoted from cinema (“You cannot steal movement, you just use it”). Like an upright posture with two horizontally extended arms, referring to the moment in City of Angels when Nicholas Cage prepares himself to fall into that strange, human world, pursuing the desire for a corporeal reality, prerequisite for communication. Eventually Soulimenko returned to his initial position at the edge of the stage, shadowboxing.

The hand leads to the other, as in a sequence proposed by Anne Juren, tracing and caressing an imaginary person on stage. It is Gehmacher who discussed at length the problem of dealing with another person on stage, departing from the horizontally extended arm that reaches out to measure, touch or violate the other. He stretched out both arms into the surrounding space: “The end of my arms, in my fingers, I suppose that is where I end and the world begins.” Me, the world, the other, but never quite outside – it is the recurring conflicting triangle of a choreographer that time and again runs into himself on stage, enmeshed in his own movement language. A deep melancholy lingers in Gehmacher’s hand, as a dark mirror that turns into a familiar score too easily. That he is himself aware of that, in spite of continuously pushing the borders of his choreographic phraseology, he beautifully exposed at the end of his walk + talk with the phrase: “maybe the only thing I want in the end is to hold myself.” Taking up a curator’s position with the walk + talk series is another escape route.


Talking dance

During the afternoon, the artists participating in walk + talk had informal meetings to discuss issues among one another. Talking, also about talking on stage. Again banal incidents appeared to conceal profound issues, such as a problem with a microphone and a producer’s complaint about audibility. Or was it a problem of comprehension? And of what exactly: that peculiar continental English used by dance makers all over Europe? Or perhaps even that foreign language which seldom leaves the dance studio? Referring to this ‘dance talk,’ the French dance theoretician Laurence Louppe writes: “These conversations equally nurture a ground of shared references and contribute to the sharing of a memory and a culture. That ‘culture,’ in the anthropological sense of the word, nourishes itself with a History (of dance, of art), memories of performers, dance experiences, and the intimate rapport with the body. It is the ‘dance talk’ (…), often incomprehensible to those who don’t belong to the choreographic microcosm. This speech of dance will step by step, as I hope, be able to make itself heard through infiltration in the dominant cultural discourse.” (2)

When Milli Bitterli adopts the language of the dance class, it reaches out toward the spectator. When Boris Charmatz speaks two lines in French, provincialist Vienna is confused. When Oleg Soulimenko speaks English while dancing in Russian, nobody bothers or even notices. When Meg Stuart moves from talking to mumbling to lip syncing inaudible words, it is welcomed as imaginative. When Philipp Gehmacher talks about his “shoulder as a mediator that allows to throw your organs into a limb” – are we then suddenly too far from home? In what language does one actually speak about one’s work as a choreographer? Mostly artists are asked to talk about their world-view in newspapers, about their life in the weekend editions, sometimes about their poetics in a performing arts journal. But they are seldom addressed as makers, which renders the language of making inaccessible and inexistent even for interested audiences. That walk + talk created a public space for this language to exist, is an important step toward alternative ways to discuss dance.

In his walk + talk, Boris Charmatz remarked how rich the language used in the series actually is: it includes tasks, vocabularies of anatomy and dance techniques, explanations, narrative and anecdotes, et cetera. For him, dance is eminently discursive, always brimming with language, whether outspoken or residing silently in the moving body. When dancers speak, they are today still confronted with the strong expectation that dance should be a silent art form. Which doesn’t mean that talking on stage makes dance automatically a political act, as Charmatz pointed out with an intriguing anecdote. In 2002 he performed the political speech J’ai failli, taking the position of the socialist Lionel Jospin, who had lost the presidential elections already in the first round. This was not only speaking on stage, but speaking out, moving from a noble artistic interest in ‘the political’ to embracing politics. After the performance, a woman, for whom dance is a strong art form precisely because it doesn’t need language, addressed Charmatz in confusion and disagreement, saying his speech was a problem. Charmatz added: “I still don’t know whether it was a problem for me, for her, or for dance.” If dancers have to speak and to speak out on stage, because no one else does, might dance’s specific place in society then eventually get lost?

That walk + talk took on an ambiguous form is interesting in this respect. In contrast with a regular dance performance (which often risks superficial comments such as “I liked it”), a lecture-demonstration (which risks to be reduced to the content of its speech), or an improvisation (which risks to make spectators oblivious), walk + talk‘s confusion and uncommon format were productive when it came to reflection and discourse. Elusive though the “dance talk” might be for some spectators, walk + talk‘s language had a contagious quality to it. Audience members stayed inside the Halle G to contemplate the empty stage and discuss what they had seen and heard right before, as if they were continuing the proposal.


Performing stage fright

All ten choreographers had a deliberate entrance and exit, as a way to address the audience, appropriate the space, launch themselves into their walk + talk. Milli Bitterli for instance quickly marked and pointed out a series of entrances she had previously done in other pieces. “But today I will enter from there.” Once behind the backdrop, waiting to make her entrance, she continued to talk about her anxiety of going on stage, adding a little emotion in her voice to it, but also well knowing that “it is fake, because this moment actually happened five minutes ago behind that other door.” That is her freedom on stage: the possibility to lie. In an aftertalk, she mentioned another element of security pertinent to walk + talk: that the allegedly ‘bare’ space of Halle G was actually a construction by Philipp Gehmacher and Alexander Schellow, an intervention that made her feel safe in her exposure.

The spatial set-up for walk + talk was as crucial as it was invisible or barely discussed. Gehmacher and Schellow had taken the backdrop, wings, portal frame and other curtains out of the space, flooded the stage with light that extended into the auditorium, scattered several pick-up microphones across the space to create a peculiar acoustic double, and added small details here and there, like a narrower stretch of dance floor, or a loudspeaker sitting on stage. For each walk + talk, details would change, like the size and position of the speaker, or a microphone in an alternative position. For spectators following the whole walk + talk series, these changes brought the history of the space to attention. Though the myriad possibilities of the set-up were hardly used by the performing artists, partly due to a lack of rehearsal time and generating not more than indifference, that could also appear as a gesture of resistance. After all, Gehmacher had invited nine people to expose themselves and their work in a space that was very much composed after his ideas – so they had to move in someone else’s world. In a discussion, Schellow also called the intricate sound design a world beyond their control.

What appears to be an empty space, is already designed, marked by other performances, charged with the memories and projections of artists and spectators, brimming with unknown energies and potential places. Sioned Huws’ walk + talk specifically addressed that space, challenging it by adding a layer of impossibility. She entered through the back door, danced all the way up to the front according to a strict swivelling pattern, an continued to map out the whole perimeter of the stage – without including the backstage or audience areas. She ended up in front of the dance floor, close to the audience, dropped her concentration and started to talk casually, stating that she had failed to accomplish the task of walk + talk, that she ended up stringing movement together as if making a performance, that it was quite off the mark and that she had decided at 4 pm to not present that. “So, you can relax. What you are going to see is not a performance.” The genuine character of her confession, the thwarting of expectations, the energy drop, the sudden silence, the confusion that ensued – it would never leave the space.

Rather than discussing her failure of 4 pm, Huws had it hover in that large empty space, or perhaps even passed it on to the audience as a hot potato. In a tone as heavy as informal, she entered into dialogue with the audience, inviting to look at the space. To her, it didn’t speak, it was just a large empty space. And indeed, without a dancer in it to pull the spectators’ imagination about and fuel theatre’s economy of desire, the space didn’t speak, it stayed curiously mute. Later on, Huws proposed to trade places with the audience – eventually discussing this exchange as her idea of choreography that espouses the utopia of real people in real time on stage. That most spectators eagerly jumped on stage was actually not only propelled by their lingering curiosity and desire to perform, but perhaps also a step to overcome the unsettling stage fright of an imagination that rests speechless in front of what was a large, empty stage.


Skilled vulnerability

As she actually proposed a walk + talk, and as the series’ aim was not all that clear – Sioned Huws’ self-declared failure stays wrapped in confusion. Did she really fail? Did she perform failure? Did she fail to share her failure? Quite the contrary, though her proposal had an unexpected honesty and vulnerability to it. In a certain respect, the project walk + talk revolved around one of the main paradoxes in contemporary dance: to address human failure, vulnerability or exposure, one needs highly trained dancers in order to use the body as a richly textured metaphor for inability. Vulnerability on stage is always skilled vulnerability. When performers would ‘really’ fail (whatever that is), it doesn’t speak anymore, as one drops out of intelligibility’s realm, or as one is exposed in an embarrassing way. An example of the latter is an inexperienced dancer that is lost in an improvisation, unable to cope with the situation and lift the awkwardness to a metaphorical level.

In walk + talk, ten choreographers regarded as specialists in staging vulnerability, were invited to expose themselves on stage, as artists and as persons. Moving from the studio to the stage in order to share one’s personal language inevitably also meant: to explore the paradox of skilled failure. walk + talk allowed to investigate the character and limits of a central fiction that nourishes a critical expressionism: choreography as a vehicle to truthfully address the human condition in skirting the edges of representation. Remark that walk + talk was not simply imbued with a certain expectation of ‘authenticity’, this paradoxical desire was permanently tangible as a construct in the bare yet highly contrived set-up of the performance space.

Exposure is one of Meg Stuart’s main themes, and recurring in her walk + talk on several levels, from demonstrating impossible tasks such as ‘getting off the floor’ or ‘being your own shelter’, over persistently breaking up her phrases and lines of thought while moving through her back pile of tasks, memories, experiences, bits and pieces of old performances, to addressing the audience (“What are you looking at? Take a closer look.”) and improvising herself in a muddle and then out of it again. All of it were familiar strategies, but Gehmacher’s format provided an interesting framing: without supporting dramaturgy, music and set design, Stuart was ultimately confronted with the question of her own movement language, without the usual packaging.

Both Boris Charmatz and Jeremy Wade, who presented their walk + talks in one evening, have an obsession with the real in their work. Showing and explaining excerpts of pieces, Wade stated with a certain bluntness his documentary strategy as a choreographer. To address failure, he incorporates movement material as he witnessed it in drug addicts at rave parties, in an asylum as a social worker, et cetera. For Charmatz, the real is connected to the subject’s insecure place in the symbolical order, and to the collapse of intricate representational systems. He alternated choreographic strategies such as exhaustion and absorption with throwing fits, toying with his dark desire to destroy things and the unconscious as imaginary. But the limits unsettling Charmatz’ work were to be found elsewhere, when he suggested the futility of his radical manoeuvres in a coded way by performing two dances by Isadora Duncan: rocking and burying a dead child (art overtaken by ‘life’), and a worker’s dance (art overtaken by the ‘world’, that is by a political reality).

In her walk + talk that closed the series, Anne Juren went in a very different direction than her predecessors, placing the project in an unexpected perspective. She didn’t address the audience directly, didn’t adhere to the lecture-demonstration format, proposed a series of scenes but didn’t exactly explain her work. Juren hinted at the biographical by stating her age in connection with scenes, moving back into the past (“29”, “27”), travelling through experiences that have been important for her artistic development. Deliberately performing a certain distance and inwardness in connection with the biographical, Juren resisted some overtones at work in walk + talk: is the expectation that artists genuinely expose themselves on stage after all that different from human interest in newspapers, magazines and television shows? But Juren actually started by telling a story about being invited to a dinner party where you don’t know anybody, don’t quite understand the context, don’t even understand the language spoken there, and find yourself in the position of a spectator trying to avoid embarrassment. In a way, Juren deconstructed the idea cherished in walk + talk that an artist can actually explain one’s work and reintroduced mystery or secret as a central notion in art-making. Even when guided into new languages in ten or a thousand walk + talks, as an audience member you’ll always have to work to enter other people’s world.

(1) Cf. André Lepecki, ‘Dance without distance’, Ballett International, Febr. 2001, pp. 29–31. Also available at http://www.sarma.be/text.asp?id=860

(2) Laurence Louppe in Poétique d’une danse contemporaine – la suite, Brussels 2007, p. 64. See my review elsewhere on corpus: http://www.corpusweb.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=496&Itemid=35